Johnston on Leafs: Dare to dream

Ottawa Senators goaltender Ben Bishop, left, reacts after Toronto Maple Leafs' Nazem Kadri celebrates his third goal of the game. THE CANADIAN PRESS/ Patrick Doyle
March 31, 2013, 1:12 AM

OTTAWA – This was a night to dream if you have any vested interest in the Toronto Maple Leafs.

There was Nazem Kadri’s natural hat trick and a kiss from Don Cherry that seemed to affirm his arrival as a bonafide NHL star. There was more confirmation that Joffrey Lupul has developed into an elite player and a difference-maker.

There was even another shutout for James Reimer at Scotiabank Place.

Most importantly, there were also two more points added to the standings for a Leafs team that would have to drive the 18-wheeler off the proverbial cliff to miss out on the post-season now.

The players know that better than anyone and have become a little less guarded when discussing the franchise’s nine-year drought.

After Saturday’s 4-0 win over the Ottawa Senators, Kadri stood in the visiting dressing room clutching a “Hockey Night in Canada” towel — a souvenir from his visit with Cherry and Ron MacLean — and talked about how good it felt a year ago to play hockey deep into the spring with the American Hockey League’s Toronto Marlies.

“I think this team can do the exact same thing,” he said. “We’re not just looking to squeak into the playoffs and be out first round. We want to make a name for ourselves and change what everyone else thinks about the Toronto Maple Leafs.”

Look out: The long-time league doormat is brash and bold and climbing in the standings.

Toronto has built a nine-point cushion in the Eastern Conference and can reasonably start looking up rather than down after pulling alongside the Sens in fifth place with 44 points. Both teams appear to be in the clear and playoff-bound with just four weeks left in the regular season.

Prior to Saturday’s game, Kadri met with a handful of reporters and proclaimed that playing in Ottawa was something he enjoyed because it was almost like being at home. Then he went out and beat Ben Bishop three times — all assisted by Lupul, with whom he’s had an instant on-ice connection — and saw the ice flooded with hats.

As if that weren’t surreal enough, Cherry marched into the Leafs dressing room after the final horn and dragged Kadri into an adjacent TV studio, where he gave him the Doug Gilmour treatment.

“I grew up watching these games all the time,” said Kadri. “I just went in there and sat with Grapes and Mr. MacLean and I thought that was pretty surreal. I’d always see the guys after having big nights come (in there).

“Don even gave me a little peck on the cheek, too.”

It concluded a stretch of seven games in 11 nights where the Leafs went 5-0-2 and all but solidified their playoff hopes. It also ensured that they could properly enjoy the break that comes before they face Philadelphia on Thursday.

The team will take Sunday completely off.

“We’ve played an awful lot of hockey,” said coach Randy Carlyle. “It’s nice to be able to get a little bit of a break, especially with the weather turning and the sun shining. It’s spring and Easter Sunday.

“These guys have earned a deserved rest, but Monday we’re back to work.”

Saturday was the kind of day that made you forget about the cold grip of winter.

As the bright sun peaked above the parliament buildings and began turning the Rideau Canal into a flowing stream, there wasn’t a winter jacket to be found anywhere in the Byward Market in the heart of the nation’s capital.

Instead, there was a colourful cross-section of hockey sweaters — a mix of Senators red, Maple Leafs blue and even a couple of the Habs bleu, blanc et rouge — and what spoke more about the current situation than that?

Playoff weather has arrived in the Great White North and playoff hockey is on the way soon.

Only two Canadian teams qualified for the spring the tournament the last two years and this season could see double that amount in the Eastern Conference alone with Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto and Winnipeg.

Vancouver looks like a good bet out West and hard-charging Edmonton has a shot as well — which means as many as six of the 16 teams in the NHL playoffs could represent Canadian cities.

The post-season is drawing so close that players can’t help but ignore it.

“You think about it every day,” said Reimer. “Every day you look at the standings.”

There has been much conjecture around the Leafs of late about management’s desire to bring in a veteran goaltender prior to Wednesday’s trade deadline.

After hearing that chatter, Reimer wanted to give GM Dave Nonis something to think about with his performance on Saturday night. He benefitted from an early crossbar but finished strong with 31 saves, which included twice denying Guillaume Latendresse on a breakaway.

“I know coming in here and that you’d only have a couple times to prove to management that you can play,” said Reimer. “I feel like I’ve played well and done what I can. It’s up to them.”

It wasn’t too long ago that Kadri found his own future in the hands of Leafs management and he didn’t always agree with the decisions former GM Brian Burke made.

However, with the benefit of hindsight, he now understands why the organization made him spend so much time in the AHL the last two seasons. In fact, Kadri concedes that it probably made him ready to perform on nights like Saturday.

“I’ll tell you right now it sucked,” he said. “I didn’t enjoy what was happening. As a young guy, I didn’t really understand the whole process. … Especially after seeing the team lose, your blood boils down there wanting to get up and make a difference.

“But I think it was the right play, maybe it matured me a little bit.”

He’s arrived at just the right time.

Kadri’s teammates have taken to calling him “The Dream” and right now the folks that occupy Leafs Nation don’t want to wake up.

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